The Importance of Being Oscar – Original Online

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Director: Michael Fentiman

Writer: Micheál Mac Liammóir

Jailed in 1895 for “gross indecency”, the playwright and poet Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years in Reading’s prison. Acknowledging this link with Wilde, Reading Rep Theatre has re-staged Micheál Mac Liammóir’s 1981 play The Importance of Being Oscar. A one-man show, performed by Original Theatre’s artistic director, Alastair Whatley, the play examines Wilde’s extraordinary life.

Born in Dublin, Wilde quickly built a reputation for bohemian excess on his arrival in London. Luckily for him, Oscar’s confidence did not exceed his talent. We know him best for his plays: Lady Windermere’s Fan, An Ideal Husband, The Importance of Being Earnest. Whatley goes into significant detail about his writing: die-hard Oscar fans will love this show. Wilde’s ascension to literary stardom was short-lived: a tempestuous relationship with aristocrat Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, resulted in gossip and scandal. Wilde was arrested just two months after An Importance of Being Earnest debuted at the St James’s Theatre to rave reviews and, initially, eager audiences.

While some critics have dubbed The Importance of Being Oscar as “more mild than Wilde”, it is in the subtle notes that Whatley reveals the fullest range of Oscar’s creative output. Even those with a fleeting knowledge of Wilde will know something about one or other of his plays; the epigrams might be familiar. But where The Importance of Being Oscar does the man greatest service is in revealing more about his writing: the essays on art and love, and Wilde’s first and last love: poetry.

The play includes moments where Whatley pauses the re-telling of Oscar’s life to recite The Harlot’s House and The Ballad of Reading Gaol. We can hear for ourselves the route Oscar’s poetry takes: from his early “serpentine rhythms” to the stripped-back but hard-won truths of his later work. Whatley reads them with sensitivity, and this is where Wilde becomes most alive to us. The readings act as a framework, and Whatley’s interpretation of Oscar’s bitter, accusatory letter to Bosie (De Profundis) is exemplary.

The staging of the production keeps our focus on the words, too. Whatley stands in the middle of a circle, with few props or gimmicks to distract us. The playing space may be restrictive, but Mac Liammóir’s play takes us from 1890s London to the hellish confines of prison and onto freedom, for a few fleeting years, in Europe. The mood is enhanced with Barnaby Race’s score: delicate but atmospheric.

When a story like Oscar’s has been told so many times, you might wonder what else there is to discover. Mac Liammóir’s landmark play gives equal attention to the writer as well as his biography. The lightning flashes of wit are there, but so too is Wilde’s perseverance in surviving prison, and the attempts to silence him and his writing: his lasting fame was not guaranteed. The Importance of Being Oscar reminds us of the breadth of Wilde’s talent, and also what would be lost if Wilde had disappeared without a trace.

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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